Five Things One Should Know about the Ijele Headdress


In his analysis of the Igbo concept of their cosmos, M. A. Onwuejeogwu (1972) observes that their universe is divided into four major departments ‘uwa’ refers to the world of man; ‘mmo’ refers to the ancestors; ‘alusi’ includes forces such as the river force ‘Idemile’; and ‘Okike’ is God. These four divisions are conceptually united on the Ijele headdress.

Igbo Ijele mask

Igbo Ijele mask

The size ranges from over four to as much as six meters in height, with a diameter of about three meters. Ijele is by far the most monumental of all Igbo masks, and makes an appearance once every 25 years. The structure is an open cone framework at the top supporting attached figures, and a cylindrical base. There may be some connection to the architectural forms used by the Northern Igbo, and hence by extension the community relation between all facets of family and society.

Ijele Community forms and symbols.

Ijele Community forms and symbols.

The symbols at the top of the mask represent important aspects of community life, and fall into three categories ;

  • man and his activities,
  • the Spirit world,
  • the animals and the forest.
Ijele "uli" symbols

Ijele “uli” symbols

Panels of patterned velvet hang from the bottom of the frame. In body painting, these designs are called ‘uli’ patterns, named after the juice or indigo used as the painting medium.

Ijele is also a leading spirit (mmuo). As a rule, Igbo masks do not represent specific spirits but rather dramatize particular attributes of humans, animals, spirits and ancestors. However, since some Igbo masks dramatize the close parallels between the living and the dead, as does the maiden-spirit mask ensemble, which Ijele resembles in terms of style and artistic tradition, one may infer that the leading mask Ijele incarnates those venerated ancestors to whom a supra-sensible power had revealed the land and how to prosper on it (Davidson 1969).

“The Ijele mask broadens our understanding of the mask in African societies. The cone-cylinder form and the headdress construction relate to the Igbo environment in their architectural referents, and its tableau provides a social narrative of Igbo life. Its vivid colors and elaborate ornamentation reflect the resources of Igbo wall painting and door carving. Ijele as a mask is ultimately an artistic projection of the Igbo ideal of achievement, authority, and status associated with the founding fathers/ancestors, the channel through which flows the ideological strength of the Igbo universe.”[1]

[1] The Igbo Ijele Mask Author(s): Chike C. Aniakor

Reviewed work(s): Source: African Arts, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Jul., 1978), pp. 42-47+95 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL: .

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